The Bodensee, also known as the “Swabian Sea,” is Germany’s largest lake and the closest it can come to the Riviera. In Germany’s southernmost region and shared with Austria and Switzerland, it is best seen from the corniche road that follows the lake’s northern German shore with its string of pretty resorts.
Countless ferries crisscross the waters offering all kinds of excursions to the three different countries; most special is the “paradise island” of Mainau with its masses of riotous flowers and exotic vegetation. A scented isle that evokes balmy images of the Mediterranean, it was occupied in the 13th century by Teutonic knights who later built the island’s Baroque castle in 1732.
The Grand Duke of Baden took possession in 1853 and began bringing home rare plants from his travels abroad. His great-grandson and the present-day summer resident of the castle, Count Lennart Bernadotte, has kept up the family passion for botany. The lake’s near- tropical, moist microclimate leads to spectacular foliage and flowers, including more than 1,000 varieties of roses.
Konstanz is the lake’s largest and liveliest resort town, with a beautiful medieval core perfectly intact (it avoided WW II bombing thanks to its position at the border of politically neutral Switzerland). On its own small island, tethered to town by a causeway, is the Steigenberger Inselhotel, which began life in the 13th century as a cloistered monastery.
Reformer Jan Hus was held here before his execution, and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin of hot-air-balloon fame was born here when it was a private residence. The terraced restaurant, where fresh fish plucked from the lake land daily on the menu, and most of the spacious balconied rooms enjoy lovely views of the lake.
The Traube Tonbach is one of the Black Forest’s great resorts: big, well equipped, excellently situated in a lush green valley in this fabled southwest corner of Germany. There are spa and beauty treatments and sporting facilities galore, all of which pale next to the large hotel’s famous restaurant Die Schwarzwaldstube (Black Forest Room).
France and its gastronomic capital of Strasbourg are just over the border, and the French influence is reflected in the refined style of head chef Harald Wohlfahrt: witness his signature grilled pigeon with chanterelle mushrooms. In the fifteen years he has held court here, Wohlfahrt has brought the kitchen from strength to strength.
A few days of meandering through this ancient forest with such sublime food awaiting your return is the perfect scenario. Despite the density of its lofty fir trees, this southwestern corner of Germany is filled with sunny charm at every turn. The hotel, owned and run by the Finkbeiner family for more than 200 years, is within striking distance of dozens of different hiking, bike-riding, and motoring trails and a memorable historic railroad journey.
Hitch up with the classic Schwartzwald Hochstrasse (the Black Forest Crest Road), from Baden-Baden in the northwest to Freudenstadt in the southeast for 41 miles of natural beauty.
Baden-Baden, located at the northern edge of the dense Black Forest, has been known as the “summer capital of Europe” since the mid-19th century, when Queen Victoria and Napoleon III basked in its curative springs. Its dignified old-world glory can be found in the dripping elegance of the gilt-and-stucco casino, in the shaded Lichtentaler Allee, a lushly landscaped promenade along the Oos River, and in the pastel houses where Europe’s royal families and high society made their second homes.
Today Baden-Baden is once again living unashamedly on leisure and pleasure. The new palatial Caracalla baths have no fewer than seven pools. There are 300 miles of hiking paths on the periphery of the Black Forest, and a 13-mile bike path meanders through rich farm country.
The rich and royal now stay at the Brenner’s Park Hotel and Spa. One of the few remaining grand spa hotels in Europe, the 125-year-old hotel commands a perfect location overlooking the Oos River. The columns and Pompeiian-style frescoed walls of the hotel’s large heated glass-enclosed schwimmbad call to mind the ancient Roman general Caracalla, whose Roman legionnaires first discovered the curative powers of Baden-Baden’s thermal springs in the 3rd century A.D.
The hotel also offers sophisticated beauty and health care, and a nearby golf course that the Duke of Windsor called “a real pearl.” In Baden-Baden the Belle Epoque lives on; the pace is as unhurried as in bygone times, when one came to take the restorative cures of the ionizing springs. “I fully believe I left my rheumatism in Baden-Baden,” wrote Mark Twain. “Baden-Baden is welcome to it.”
If you’re not staying with the Grimaldis (the royal family that has ruled Monaco since the 13th century), try the palatial Hotel de Paris. The regal stopping place of emirs and archdukes since its inception one year after the opening of the Grand Casino next door, the Hotel de Paris looms over the main square, a must-see for curious tourists and destination for the fabulously rich and very famous.
Much of the hotel’s acclaim owes to its highly rated restaurants, particularly the formal Le Louis XV, a dazzling jewel box that has been the domain since 1987 of Alain Ducasse, one of the world’s most celebrated chefs.
Here Ducasse prides himself on using humble Mediterranean ingredients of the finest quality and refining them into a superb, albeit simple, haute cuisine. The restaurant’s opulent Louis XV decor includes Baccarat crystal, damask linens, gold-rimmed china, and silver service.
The new Centre Thalassotherapie de Thermes Marins, wedged into a cliff adjacent to the hotel, is reached through an adjoining walkway beneath the hotel. Time spent at this state-of-the-art spa is—like an evening at Le Louis XV—sheer heaven.
The tiny principality of Monaco, no bigger than London’s Hyde Park, has catered to gamblers and the idle rich for the last 100 years. Both types can be found with all their over-the-top idiosyncracies at the legendary Grand Casino, the world’s most renowned casino, and indisputably the most glamorous.
This is one of the last places on earth to witness chaffeur-driven Rolls-Royces disgorging wealthy exiles, sun-baked yacht owners, and celluloid divas weighed down by serious jewelry. The sedate, even discreet, Belle Epoque setting was designed in 1863 by Charles Gamier, grand architect of the Paris Opera.
Black tie is no longer required, but jackets and ties are a must in the inner sanctum of high rollers, and many women wear long dresses. No Monegasque gambler sets foot in the casino without first stopping by the lobby of the Hotel de Paris—a poker chip’s toss across the impeccably groomed Place du Casino—to rub the left knee of the bronze statue of Louis XIV’s horse for good luck.
Facing the hotel and alongside the casino, the Garnier-designed Cafe de Paris is a de rigueur stop for a pre -or apres-casino drink or a crepe Suzette, invented here in the early 1900s and named after a friend of the Prince of Wales.
It was chef Georges Blanc’s grandmother who first put the tiny town of Vonnas on the gastronomic map. She was called the world’s greatest cook by Curnonsky, a revered French gourmet of the early 20th century.
Her equally celebrated daughter-in-law passed on her talent and passion to her son, Georges Blanc, and today the family restaurant on the banks of the River Veyle attracts diners from all parts of the world.
The fanfare is easy to understand once the food arrives: it is simply some of the most sublime imaginable. It is not by chance that the dessert cart brims with dozens of concoctions to top off an already unbeatable meal.
Blanc began his career as a pastry chef, and sweets still have a strong claim on his heart. The profusion of flowers and antiques spills over into attached hotel guest rooms, many of which have balconies and views of the river and blooming gardens.
It all started in 1891 with Sophie Pic and a simple country cafe. Founder of the fabled Pic culinary dynasty, Sophie was the first of four generations to raise the traditional regional cuisine to a gastronomic art form. More than 100 years later, Sophie’s great-grandchildren continue one of France’s oldest and most respected family lines of chefs du cuisine.
Anne Pic—daughter of the renowned Jacques Pic, who died in 1992—is currently the creative force in the kitchen. She runs one of the most provincial of France’s grand restaurants and perhaps one of the least known of the great gastronomic shrines. The homey atmosphere and local clientele blend seamlessly with the superlative food and a sophisticated ambience that is elegant without being overdone.
Understand what all the fuss is about by ordering the Rabelais Menu on a summer evening on the outdoor patio. It includes, among other wonders, the Pic family’s classic, filet de loup au caviar, a delicate filet of bass with caviar.
The wine cellar, stocked with more than 20,000 bottles, includes more than 400 different Câtes-du-Rhones, the wine for which Pic has become the ambassador to the world. A small on-site hotel caters to traveling gourmands.
Years after they’ve dined here, people speak reverently of La Maison Troisgros, as if it were a religious experience. Dinner at Troisgros—from the simple house specialty of saumon â l’oseille (salmon with sorrel sauce) to the large rolling dessert cart—attracts diners who think nothing of driving down from Brussels to partake in the gastronomic celebration.
The menu dans la tradition, a seven-course extravaganza, is a tribute to the kaleidoscopic produce of the countryside as interpreted by the unrivaled talents of Pierre Troisgros. When his co-chef and brother, Jean, died in 1983, his son, Michel, stepped in to help his father create some of the finest food anywhere in France.
Yet despite its revered status, the dining room is surprisingly ordinary—somehow an appropriate foil for food that is nothing less than extraordinary. The restaurant also operates a small hotel with lovely rooms.
When skiers think of a picturesque alpine village, they think Megeve. Neighboring resorts dominated by Mont Blanc may offer higher- altitude skiing, but they are hard pressed to top tiny Megeve for scenery, charm, and apres-ski enjoyments.
Designated a must for society’s winter schedule by the Baroness de Rothschild in the 1920s, its colorful horse-drawn sleighs and traditional town center have kept this glamorous year-round destination popular among a privileged set that comes for the authentic and cozy rhythms of mountain-village life (albeit one with a casino) and low- key luxe.
Set in a beautiful, wide valley, Megeve may be too low to ensure snow all season long, but on a good day the excellent woodland terrain is ideal for gentle intermediate cruising. It is also known for its 47 miles of cross-country skiing, and the ski school is one of Europe’s foremost.
Regulars come back in warm weather for first-rate hiking, 18-hole golf, and a bevy of top-notch restaurants. Although not the most exclusive or expensive, surely the most charming hotel in town is Les Fermes de Marie, a bijou cluster of five century-old mazots, chaletlike farm buildings gathered from nearby hamlets and lovingly reassembled in the heart of town, beam by beam and stone by stone.
There is an all-natural spa, called a health and beauty farm; together with a mouthwatering menu of homemade ultrafresh mountain cuisine, this Megeve hostelry gives new meaning to the term “mountain refuge.”
Hailing from a family that has been running restaurants since 1767, Paul Bocuse has won the most accolades and awards in the culinary world since opening the restaurant that bears his now world-famous name in 1965.
Elegantly attired food lovers flock to his gourmet temple from all comers of the globe, content to be in the deft hands of the chefs who run things smoothly in his frequent absence. Yet the larger-than-life spirit of Bocuse is always palpable.
The first chef ever to be decorated with the Legion of Honor by a French president, Bocuse continues to offer the down- to-earth regional fare that he promotes during his world travels as ambassador of French cuisine. A handful of France’s superstar chefs may come close to matching his celebrity status as a national treasure, but none surpasses him.
Since he led a second French revolution (of cooking) in the 1970s, which came to be called nouvelle cuisine, his message has been one of simplicity. Try the full-flavored black truffle soup or spit-roasted Bresse chicken with a glass of Beaujolais from Bocuse’s own wine firm to understand the extraordinary success of the world’s most famous living chef.